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A History of the Levee System

Source:  Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Mississippi,  Chicago:  The Goodspeed Publishing Company, 1891.

Volume II, pages 72-75

Intimately connected with the Mississippi river transportation is its levee system… Only the lowland portions, of course, have an dependence on levees or dykes to protect them from overflow in times of highwater, thus rendering them cultivable and inhabitable. In the case of the Mississippi, the portion of such a low level as this indicates is an immense oval-like region, formed by the river making a vast detour from Memphis to the west, and curving back on Vicksburg, and the bluffs, back of the lowlands, debouching in a similar vast curve to the east between those two cities. This vast oval is about one hundred and eighty miles long and about seventy five miles wide, and, containing a vast area of over four million acres, about half of which is woodland, and all of which, subject to the overflows and accumulation of decayed vegetation of centuries, is of literally inexhaustible richness. To protect this from overflow was to not only make the river a better channel for transport, but practically create a country which would develop both new river and new railway transportation; but to protect a river frontage of such stupendous proportions on the greatest water course in the world was an undertaking so vast that it had to await a late day of greatly increased population. Of course there were local lines; even in 1811 a company was incorporated for one at Warrenton. So many, however, had settled in the higher unoverflowed lands of the Mississippi-Yazoo delta, as it is called, that in 1840, before it was leveed, it produced thirty-nine thousand bales of cotton, and by 1850 a total of forty-two thousand annually. But after some meager leveeing had been done, the production increased, so that in 1860 the crop was one hundred and thirty-six thousand bales! The land, unsalable before, became at once salable.

But what were these levees? The first levee on the Mississippi was begun at New Orleans in 1717, and not completed until 1727. The work extended, until by 1770 over fifty miles were completed. Says a recent writer in the Memphis Commercial: “There was a time, within the memory of men no living, when each many owning property on the great Mississippi built and kept up with his own effort the little ridges which, at that time, bore the name of levees. There were stretches of front owned by the state or government, or by non-resident land-grabbers, and these would have no protection whatever; and a levee system, above all things else, must have continuity. Its stability in all other places would be of no avail if there were gaps unfilled.

It was then that planters took upon themselves the task of systematizing the construction of these banks of dirt, which have grown to be scientifically constructed dikes, which in time will become magnificent pikes from the bluffs almost to the sea. At first they contributed so much labor per annum, which was generally called out in one big squad, with each planter or overseer commanding his own hands. Of course, as the country opened up for some miles back, the dwellers along the river front began to feel the injustice of being compelled to keep up levees to protect men who need not do anything unless they so desired. County boards were organized, which had powers of expending the funds which were raised by taxes levied by the county police jury. The powers of these boards were enlarged as the growing importance of the interests involved and the new conditions constantly being met  required, until levee boards were powerful corporations, vested by the legislature with power to tax and to have the lands in the district sold for its purposes.”

An act of December 2, 1858, organized a levee board, and a tax on all lands of the state was provided for levees, except on certain trust lands for school and other purposes, and about that time the government granted this land to the state for levee purposes. The delta people got in debt, too, in their efforts, and the oncoming war destroying levees, both as a war measure and by neglect, left the whole delta a wilderness as before. An act of 1865 reorganized it, but became effective in the act of February 13, 1867. Other acts followed, and by 1871 the levee district included the counties of Bolivar, Washington, Issaquena, Coahoma, Tunica, De Soto, Sunflower, Yazoo, Tallahatchie and Panola. The total acreage then in account for levee taxes was 3,484,278; the bonds issued aggregated $670,000; the state auditor became ex-officio levee commissioner; and the debt crept up, by 1876, to the round sum of $923,666.58. By 1880 the debt had fallen to $444,568.78 or nearly $500,000, and it was divided into two levee districts. By 1882 the debt had fallen to the small sum of $135,329.06, and funds were available for clearing it all, but for a claim set up by the Mississippi & Vicksburg railway. The floods of 1882-3 caused such disaster that an additional board was organized, called the Yazoo Mississippi Delta board, and the entire system was complete by 1886. Says the writer above quoted:

“Amendments have been submitted to and passed by successive legislatures until to-day the board of Mississippi levee commissioners – embracing in its jurisdiction the great counties of Bolivar, Washington, Sharkey and Issaquena – is one of the mightiest corporations on earth. It has six members who select its secretary and treasurer, engineer and cotton-tax collection from outside its membership. This body is empowered by law to tax, not only the lands and personality in these counties, but the very products of the soil. They may issue bonds without consulting any constituency to an amount that seems fabulous, and these are held sacred and binding for all time to come – in fact, are a lien upon the taxable property in the district. No state court can enjoin this great corporation from taking private property for its use, and the just compensation is often necessarily ascertained after the appropriation by the board. The very elaborate and perfect levee laws no in force in this district are the work of that able and untiring worker in this field, the late Col. W.A. Percy, whose efforts are being more and more appreciated as the years roll by.

For many years past this board has been constantly enlarging existing embankments and raising them to a uniform grade, until now there is a line of levee which will hold any ordinary high water, and an extraordinary one, if it is not too prolonged nor the weather too windy.

The work of laying out, enlarging and general supervision of a line of levees fully two hundred miles long, is under the care of the chief engineer in this district, Maj. William Starling, one of the most accomplished engineers in the country. He looks the soldier and scholar and practical man of affairs all happily combined. His place is no sinecure at any time, but in high water seasons it is one of the most exacting and onerous that can be imagined. People living on high hills can not imagine how one feels behind a piece of dirt which looks awfully large in summer and autumn, but is, oh, so frail when the chilly winds of March last the waters into a seething, restless mass, seeking freedom from their artificial barriers. It is there that your chief engineer is a more important personage then governor or president. He must be apparently ubiquitous. The elements must not stand between him and any threatened point. Competent assistants are often unable to satisfy the popular demand for the chief. I have seen men after fighting for hours in mud knee deep, abandon all hope and quit, utterly broken in spirits, resume work with renewed zeal at the bare sight of the martial-looking chief, whose nerve and energy seemed to have no limit.

A few facts in regard to the construction of levees may be of interest to your readers, many of whom have no proper idea of the subject. We shall take Skipwith as an example, as the crevasse at that point renders it a noted place. The levee, at the point which gave way, was an old one, and had been enlarged within three years past, and no fear was felt for its safety. After the break it was remembered that there was too little berme to it, and a current had washed under it until the entire structure caved in.

It may not be understood what this berme is, and what its office in the levee may be. In all well-regulated levee building there is an unbroken strip of earth between the base of the levee and the barrow pits. This berme varies from ten to thirty feet in width, and adds greatly to the strength and length of life of the embankment. There is, of course, a very strong pressure of water against the under side of these structures, and the force is greatest at the bottom of the barrow pits on the end next to the levee, and this berme adds greatly  to the power of the levee to resist the percolation of sipe water through it. Many breaks have occurred, no doubt, attributable to lack of berme in light, spongy soil. The muck ditch was at one time a very insignificant affair, which had no particular object, except the search for trees or holes in the center of the proposed embankment. Recent levee construction demands a much ditch which will serve as a protection from sipe and crayfish.

The Skipwith levee has under it a muck ditch six feet deep, six feet wide at bottom, and twelve feet wide on top. The board has not stopped at the size of the ditch, but on every piece of new work there is an inspector appointed to see that this muck ditch is free absolutely from all vegetable matter of any kind, and that nothing but the purest buckshot dirt finds its way into it, no matter what the character of soil through which it passes, and this is often a work of great difficulty, as on one or two sections of the new levee at Mound Landing the contractors, Messrs. Carey & Bradburn, were compelled to haul dirt nearly a quarter of a mile to get the right material.

At this point the inspector is Judge J.L. Root, who is a levee man of great ability and experience, and whose practical knowledge of the subject makes him the terror of the contractor. The inspector sees that every shovelful of dirt that goes into the great muck ditch is thoroughly packed by boys on mules continually riding over it every few seconds. The result is a core as hard as concrete, which will add a hundredfold to the strength of the embankment.

Levees are built now with six feet of base to every one foot of hight, and if there is a variation from this rule it is on the side of wider base. The slope is gentle and will stand the greatest amount of wave-wash with the least amount of wear.

These embankments are let to contractors by the cubic yard at prices ranging from ten cents to forty cents per yard. The cubic yard appears to be a very small lump of dirt until one begins to pull it with mules or push it with man-power up into the body of the work. There it looks and is of great bulk and weight…..

The taking charge of these great works by the national government will give a new impetus to the already rapid development of the county protected by them. They can and will be made to confine the great river in one safe, deep pathway to the sea.

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